6.   How Do You Say "Help" in Arabic?

By Paul Vanderveen

Copyright © 2003 by Paul Vanderveen
We were at Casablanca International Airport, just before boarding our flight back to Dakar, when I decided a final bathroom break would be in order. It must have been the new terminal area, cleanliness of the waiting room and all the polished chrome that caused me to let my guard down and assume that things would work. I didn't notice the click as I entered the tiny men's room and closed the door behind me. It had no doorknob, just a small plastic dead bolt, which I turned to lock the door.
     When it was time to go, I turned the little dead bolt and tried to push the door open, but it wouldn't budge. I found it amazing how quickly feelings of claustrophobia set in. About twice the size of an airplane lavatory, the room was dimly lit and smelled of stale cigarettes and bathroom odors, and the floor was wet from who knows what.
     Then it occurred to me that I did not know how to say, in Arabic or French, "Help, I'm stuck in the bathroom and can't get out." In fact, I didn't know how to say just plain "help" in any language which people on the other side would likely understand.
     Calming myself, I squatted down and saw a little hole where there had once been a doorknob. Looking through to the outside world, I saw the trouble I was in. The latching mechanism was still inside the door! Some jerk had taken the doorknobs off, probably a short while ago for repairs, and left the latch bolt in place! I needed to turn the square hole in the shaft inside the door to get out!
     I knocked insistently, and eventually through the little square hole I saw a pair of pants walk over. Without saying a word, however, the man left. I feared that he didn't understand my English request for assistance, but just took my knocking and complaint as an indication that the room was occupied. How strange it must have been to hear knocks coming from inside the bathroom, as though someone were trying to get into the huge waiting room!
     I tried to stick my keys in the hole to turn the mechanism, but none of them worked, as they were either too short to reach the shaft or too big to fit in the hole. I checked my pockets and looked around in the dim light, but could find nothing else which might serve as a substitute doorknob. Jan would eventually come to the rescue, I realized, but I wanted out now!
     Once when I was a kid I had gotten stuck in a snow bank, trapped in a tunnel which friends and I had built--and a few of the other kids, thinking it funny, had taken the opportunity to lob a few snowballs at me. I had felt a furious rage and broken free.
     Now it seemed hard to breathe in the smelly little room. I noticed how cramped the walls made me feel, how the wet floor and dirty toilet left no clean place to sit or even kneel. Grabbing the dead bolt, I began to feel the furious energy it would take to beat the flimsy door down. If I started in that direction, however, I figured I wouldn't stop until the door was in pieces. It was a clear choice--break the thing down now or wait and consider other possibilities. I thought that bursting out of the bathroom in a rage might be embarrassing, a regrettable and unnecessary ending to a wonderful vacation, plus I might hurt myself in the process, so I let go the knob. I always had alternatives, I told myself, asking what the hell they were now. I remembered that eventually Jan would come looking for me. We would probably not miss our flight, so I looked again for another way out.
     A second search revealed nothing useable. My Swiss Army knife would have done the job, but I had packed it so as not to set off the airport metal detectors. My keys were the only possibility. I tried them again, one by one. If I jammed one in really hard, I found it would just barely reach the shaft. At first, it slipped out of the square hole when I tried turning it, but now I had hope! I tried again, lining it up just right, diagonally, and pushing harder to make it fit. I turned it very slowly. Finally the mechanism turned--and voilà, freedom!
     The first thing I noticed was the rush of fresh air and light, the second was the security guard at the baggage inspection station. He was the closest person and looking my way. I held up my keys to show him how I got out. He obviously knew I had been trapped and, like my childhood playmates, considered the whole thing quite amusing. I did too, now, in retrospect, proud of my Yankee ingenuity and self-control.
     As I smugly walked over to Jan, I noticed that she was walking my way with our bags, although still at the far end of the waiting area. As we sat back down, she laughed, telling me that, for a moment, she imagined I might have been stuck in the bathroom. There had been some knocking coming from down there, and she was coming over to check out the disturbance.
     Sitting back down, I recounted what had happened. We joked about third world ways and what I had felt. Was my mistake closing a bathroom door, as it seems people do not mind going in public? Should we bring the problem to somebody else's attention, so they fix it? While we were joking, we heard some frantic knocking and door shaking, so I got out my key and freed a little kid and his father--after, however, letting them know that I was there to help.
     The guard thought my return with my key was even funnier and invited me to have a seat by the bathroom door, but I declined. Later, Jan noticed that someone had come to fix the door.
     My emergency was simply being stuck in a bathroom, not a life threatening situation, but no one besides Jan from the far end of the waiting room had come to the rescue, except possibly the man who had come over but not communicated his awareness of my predicament. It did not matter what language he spoke, I likely would have appreciated any sounds of reassurance at that point. When later the young boy and his father were trapped, no one else responded. I felt that while traveling in the developing world, if I ever needed help, I had better be with Jan, as I might otherwise be on my own in important respects.
     I also further lowered my mechanical and technical expectations. Over the years, I had worked in a wide range of occupations and had acquired a basic mechanical and technical competence, as have many Americans. Growing up in the States, I took certain things for granted. Our market system effectively harnessed the independent thought and judgment of millions of workers and usually made things work and safe for us, but the influence of capitalism was just reaching some corners of the globe. Traveling in developing countries was, in some respects, like going back in time.
     I once worked as a maintenance supervisor, for instance, and it was obvious to me and most other maintenance workers that you cannot take doorknobs off for repairs, while leaving latching mechanisms in place inside the doors, unless you taped the latch bolt or took other precautions.
     I had to give the locals some credit, though--they did eventually repair the latch.

  1. First Bribe
  2. You Decide
  3. Acknowledging Others
  4. Passing Grade
  5. Two Foreign Cultures
  6. How Do You Say "Help" in Arabic?
  7. Risks in the Developing World  < Next
  8. Un, Deux, Trois
  9. Hello But No Cadeau